Surrealism and New York
JS: What was Peggy Guggenheim like?
HS: A very, very interesting woman. Highly personal, original, independent, with a mind of her own. With the talent to detect quality—in human beings as well as in art. She got for her gallery the best advice. She had Breton, Duchamp, Alfred Barr, Sweeney, Kiesler. They were all in the jury. And I was accepted by them, and I was in all the group shows from the beginning of the gallery to the end.
JS: You were also included in the "First Papers of Surrealism" show in 1942.
HS: At that time I was sympathetic with all the Surrealists.
JS: Your Surrealist works were mostly collage.
HS: That was very early. That was before '43—before my show at Betty [Parsons]. It took very little time until I discovered the United States, and I decided that the United States was more surrealist, more extraordinary, than anything imagined by the Surrealists. Look, the Surrealists compared to Americans were very stodgy. Here, an ordinary person on Long Island built a duck that sold ducks. He sold his ducks out of a duck! In California they sold you orange juice out of a glass of orange juice [laughs]. And I remember there was a play called Hellzapoppin. It was more wildly Surrealist than what the wildest Surealists imagined.
And I discovered my immediate surroundings. So that's what I painted: first I came, and I got rid of memories of my past life. At the same time I got involved with things I saw every day—my kitchen, my bathroom, which were utterly different from kitchens and bathrooms in Europe, and I made interesting paintings of those, because I thought they were wonderful interesting shapes.
JS: I read that you and Saul Steinberg, your second husband [they married in 1944], used to drive around and go sightseeing—
HS: —in New York, we couldn't have enough.
JS: And especially looked at bridges.
HS: We looked at everything, everything. Every Sunday when there was no traffic, we went motoring through New York. I was crazy about New York. Then in '47, I went to the country and I discovered agricultural machines. I had a feeling that machines are unconscious self-portraits of people's psyches: the grasping, the wanting, the aggression that's in a machine. That's why I was interested to paint them. And I called them "anthropographs"—maybe it was pretentious thinking [laughs].
When I took a trip through the U.S. by car, I got involved in painting highways [1951–57]. In order to show the feeling I had of cars moving at high speed and blurring, I used to spray paint, which is a speedy way of working. You know, there are certain subjects that suggest the technique to do them in. Those highway subjects suggested the spray, and those paintings are in perfect condition to this day. At the time, though, that commercial paint was thought to be no good. In any case, all along it was never imagination of self-expression. I always thought that art is not quote self-expression by communication. It is saying, hey, look! Of course, what you react to has to be transformed, without a doubt, or otherwise it is not art, but you do that whether you want it or not. The intention, the purpose, is not to show your talent but to show something. This is very important. Because I grew up and lived in a period of ego, ego, ego. And I was always anti-ego. Why do you laugh?
JS: Because your description is wonderful.
HS: It means you agree with me.
JS: I'm listening to you. I want to hear more.
HS: And I was always trying to reduce the ego. You know? I tried to think in a way that was accurate. Not subjective. Not agnostic. The Surrealists tried to be agonistic, bizarre. I wasn't like that. I didn't think I had the kind of mind and power of thinking to change the world. I had a very great urgency to show, to share. The cat brings you in things, you know—it was that kind of thing. I discovered things and wanted to share them. It's a malentendu to consider me Abstract Expressionist. I was invited to participate in many things, but I never considered myself part of that group, or any group, and it shows in my work.
I did what I was interested in. Also, I didn't have the need—and for that I'm not particularly proud, I was just lucky—I didn't have the urgency to keep myself alive, because I was a kept woman, a married woman. I didn't have to make concessions to be liked. If they liked me, it was OK. I never looked for a gallery. When Peggy [Guggenheim] left, there was Betty [Parsons] here, who was a friend. We a group of friends asked her to open a gallery. And she did. She took all of us in because she had a theory if you take everybody in there will be good ones, too [laughs], And that's how she became one of the great galleries in the United States. Don't you think it's the most brilliant thinking?
I was with her from '43 when she was still working with the Wakefield Gallery, as an employee, until she died [in 1982]. And then I went to CDS, where I had already been invited for a guest show. Betty went to the opening. It was a friendly thing she did. Then when Betty died, I just stayed. Never did I try to sell myself and my work. I would have been bad at it. There were times when I thought I had inhibitions about being professional, but in the end I'm glad I was like that.